Friday, August 14, 2015

A Century From Yesterday...

... the industrial explosions in China may or may not be forgotten, the summer's insane weather in parts of the US may mark the onset of the most significant global climate change in all human history or it may be a distant and unimportant memory, the fires on the West Coast will be out and others may take their place, the battle between America's police and its nonwhite communities may have led to the demise of the nation or it may have been resolved in the eventual reconciliation of the disparate racial parts of our society, and surely no one will remember what "DeflateGate" was about...

... but I am willing to bet this narrowly decided Connecticut state supreme court ruling will be hailed for a century or more as one of the events that set America on the path to civilization as exemplified in our criminal justice system: the state legislature having already repealed the death penalty in 2012 for all future crimes, the court ruled that scheduled executions of those convicted earlier of capital crimes would constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" and must not be carried out. For better or worse, eleven people on Death Row are spared by this decision. (DPIC offers a good short summary of the ruling: Connecticut Supreme Court Finds Death Penalty Violates State Constitution.)

It's not just a question of whether the death penalty may be legally assessed and meted out: it's a question of whether capital punishment can ever be carried out with the requisite certainty, the essential confidence of guilt and of intent, to justify a purposeful state killing of any of its citizens. (Reminder: even a confession is not as solid as is required for such a drastic action, because false confessions are astonishingly common.)

As I write this, according to Wikipedia, there are 31 US states, as well as the federal civilian and military legal systems, which still have the death penalty on the books. Some of those states have not executed anyone in many years. Other questions, e.g., the means of execution, have become the focus of legal debates leading to decisions not to execute people even in these death penalty states. So it's not an easy question, and in many states, it is a question that has not been resolved.

Again by Wikipedia, the US as a whole is fifth among countries in number of executions; our companion countries on that short list are Iran, China, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, not a fellowship most Americans would like to claim as our own, but there it is. Tradition can carry a nation only so far in justifying an ancient and barbaric practice: think about our cohort of nations the next time you find yourself advocating for the death penalty in America.

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